Things to Consider When You’re Considering Graduate School

I don’t intend to write much about graduate school in this blog.  For one thing, I’m still working on my thesis, and if I’m going to be writing on this subject, I should probably just be writing my paper.  This has also been a challenging journey for me, and it’s going to take some time before I have the distance and clarity needed to write about the experience.

Having said all that, I have been reading a number of other peoples’ blog posts about grad school, and yesterday I found myself writing a rather long-winded response to one young undergrad who was trying to decide whether or not to go for the advanced degree.  As I pushed the ‘submit’ button, I realized that I had spent the better part of an hour writing my response, which seemed really ludicrous.  I didn’t know this person.  Why did I care so much?  I cared because there are a lot of things I wish I had considered before I started grad school.  This morning I read my comments again, and to my ears they didn’t sound too horribly trite, or bitter, or otherwise unrepeatable.  So here they are.  And for those of you who are considering grad school, I hope they are useful:

1.  When to do it?  I’m in my early thirties and working towards my Masters degree. I worked and traveled for a while after my undergrad, and am glad I did. A couple of my office-mates in grad-school were in their early twenties and decided to go for their advanced degrees very soon after their undergrad degrees. They are finished now and doing well for themselves out in the career world. There is no correct decision here. There are only decisions that are right or wrong for you, and stumbling along until you figure out what you want is just part of life. I know that sounds both smug and cliche, and I personally find transition periods very difficult as well (particularly the bits that involve waiting for responses about jobs or program opportunities). But, it’s true — Life sorts itself out.  Worrying and rushing big decisions probably won’t help you in the long run.

2.  Making the right decision.  Do you really want to go to grad school (i.e. you really enjoy academia, or think it is essential if you want to progress in your chosen career field), or are you mostly afraid of leaving the familiar environment of college for the less familiar one of job hunting? Grad school is a beast, even for those who like it, and should not be approached merely because the other options look scarier. The advanced degree will always be waiting for you, if you change your mind later.

3. There’s something to be said for on-the-job learning.  Finding work in your career field rather than continuing on with school right away may teach you some things you didn’t know about yourself. You may find that you enjoy certain kinds of work environments and tasks more than others, and this can influence the kinds of jobs you want to apply to later on. Do people in your career field work very long hours? Are they frequently put in stressful situations? Is the work fast- or slow-paced?  Would you be doing a variety of things every day, or focusing on the same few tasks over and over? Would you be working with other people a lot, or mostly on your own? Learning which situations you thrive in vs. which ones make you want to call in sick every day is really important. If your undergrad degree was a general degree (Liberal Arts, Biology, etc.), you might find that working will help define your career focus. On the other hand, if you already are focused, maybe you don’t need this in-between period.

4. Boss hunting. If you do go for the advanced degree, be SURE to choose your primary advisor carefully. You will be working closely with this person for years of your life, and he or she will define your experience much much more than the program you are in or the classes you take. For the sake of your future sanity, health, and general well-being, do not be passive in making this decision. Does he or she respond readily to emails or phone calls? All professors are insanely busy people, but some communicate with students and colleagues more readily than others. You don’t want to get stuck with a non-communicator. How happy are this person’s students? If you find somebody you like, find out who he/she is advising, and ask for contact information. You will learn a LOT about a prospective advisor by talking to the people whose degrees depend upon her/him, and by seeing whether they seem jaded or enthusiastic. If you can talk to them over lunch or otherwise outside of the department environment, all the better.  I wish I had done this.

5. On a similar note, what kind of research project (if any) will you be expected to complete? There is not really a standard for projects in grad school, and some Masters students have nice compact projects, while other Masters students have projects so large and unwieldy you would think they were going for their PhD. PhD students similarly seem to have projects that vary in size. If you’ve found a potential advisor, find out what kind of a research project he/she will expect from you. This will be hard if you aren’t already familiar with the kind of research this person does, but ask about graduation deadlines, say you want to finish in X amount of time, and ask how long it has taken this person’s other students to finish. If your potential advisor wants somebody to continue with an ongoing research project, learn as much about that project as you can. If you haven’t seen the Lady Gaga remake song called “Bad Project,” then watch it on YouTube and beware. Sometimes it’s a good thing, not having to start a project from scratch. Sometimes inheriting somebody else’s work is not so good.

6. Finances. Maybe you already know this, but it is most definitely possible to gain a higher degree without having to pay out of pocket. While you are contacting professors, look around for people who have assistanceships available. There are more assistanceships available if you want to go for the PhD, but Masters assistanceships exist out there as well. Also, don’t let yourself be lured into pursuing a PhD if that’s not what you actually want. Sometimes when professors have funding for new students they will advertise openings on their web pages. Other times you just have to contact them and find out. Sometimes one professor won’t have anything, but will refer you to another professor who does. There is a lot to be said for going to grad school on a full ride, and knowing you will come out of your program debt-free. However, keep in mind that it is much harder to divorce your advisor when they have invested a lot in you financially. Accepting an assistanceship is great, but make sure you are comfortable with your program, project, and advisor before signing on… There’s nothing worse than doing the equivalent of signing a multi-year contract with the military and discovering you can’t stand the working environment.

***

That’s it for now.  Do any of you who have been to grad school and survived have any further advice to add?

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